Lent: Purification from Natural Motives


Man is not a pure spirit. All his actions do not spring from his spiritual nature. A good part — if not all — comes from his animal instincts, and often these instincts go to excess, passing the bounds of reason.

However, these instincts are not always satisfied with full deliberation: man is unable to maintain the constant attention and perfect control that would require. Nor, on the other hand, is there satisfaction without some participation of the will, which does not exercise the control it should and could. This is what theologians call semi-deliberate venial sins, on account of the half attention and half consent they involve. Frequent confession may diminish their number, but cannot suppress them completely.

Only when the soul reaches perfect purity and perfect union with God, only then do all human inclinations become perfectly ordered and directed to God. The soul has then become the "casa sosegada" — the pacified mansion, as St. John of the Cross calls it in his poem on the Dark Night of the Soul. But as the saint says, very few reach that state.

To attain this perfect purity, the soul must be purified not only from venial sin, but even from purely natural motives. An action may not be a sin, because it does not break any rule of good human behavior, and yet it may not be inspired by faith or love of God, but only by a natural motive. For instance, one might eat without any excess of any sort, but just for satisfaction. There is no sin; yet one has acted purely from a natural motive.

Many do not realize the harm it does to the soul, and justify many acts by saying, "It's not a sin," as if this were enough. Not to offend somebody does not mean loving him. This is precisely the fault with actions inspired by purely natural motives: they do not proceed from the love of God, but from love of the goods of this world.

Because no one can serve two masters (Mt. 6,24) ("if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (Jo. 2,15)), such actions are without merit, as Jesus teaches very clearly in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 6,1-18). There he takes the three kinds of good works, most recommended in Holy Scripture — almsgiving, prayer and fasting — and declares that if they are done in order to be seen by men, "you shall have no reward with your Father in heaven" (Mt. 6, 1).

Note that to do something to be seen by men means to do it for the sake of glory and that glory is the highest natural motive. Very few people indeed do things for the sake of glory only; most of the time they do it for the pleasure of the money it brings them. Yet Jesus declares that the best actions done for the highest natural motive are without value in God's sight. Why should he regard what was not done for him?

Worse, natural motives lead to sin. As a consequence of the fall, the natural inclinations of man are no longer under the perfect control of reason and, unless checked, carry us to excess and to sin. And this happens all the more easily, since purely natural actions are not inspired by the Holy Spirit. It may even come to the point where we live only for the goods of the world, so that there is no love of God in us. To God, we then become adulterers and enemies: "Adulterers, do not know that the friendship of this world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of this world becomes an enemy of God" (James, 4,4).

A Christian should do all he does for the glory of God, as St. Paul teaches his disciples: "Whether you eat or drink, or do anything else, do all for the glory of God" (I Cor. 10,31; see Col. 3,17).

Is it possible to live this way? Yes, but not without effort, and not without grace. It should be noted, however, that for an action to be inspired by a supernatural motive, be it faith, hope or charity, it is not necessary to be thinking about it all the time. It is not possible here on earth to keep our attention fixed on God always: it is enough that our intentions tend to him always; and this is possible.

A mother preparing a meal is not repeating all the time, "For my husband, for my children." But were somebody to ask her whom she is doing it for, she would immediately answer: "For my husband and children." That is her only motive.

If I go into town, I don't have to repeat all along the way, "I want to go to town." I decide to go, and then walk in virtue of that decision without thinking about it; this is what theologians call a virtual intention which really inspires an action without attention to it.

In order to act always for the glory of God, it is necessary first of all to form this intention and offer our actions to God. This is why we should make it our practice to present to God every morning all we are going to do or to suffer during the day. This intention can easily be forgotten, since it is not necessary for the action. It is impossible to go into town without wanting to go, but altogether possible to go without the intention of going for the love of God. This explains why good resolutions wear out much faster than a pair of shoes! Spiritual authors recommend that we make a new offering at the beginning of a new occupation, or when we notice the time.

Useful as this practice may be, it cannot bring the soul to perfect purity. Our natural inclinations remain, so that when something is pleasing they may influence our action more than the love of God. It is difficult to eat ice-cream just for the love of Jesus, without some love for the ice-cream! Natural motives creep in, despite our protests of love for Jesus. St. Therese of Lisieux found that out one day when, supposedly out of love for Jesus only, she put a pot of flowers back in its place, forgotten by Ce1ine. She was quite disappointed when Ce1ine did not thank her.

It is necessary to control our natural inclinations through mortification. The Church therefore reminds us during Lent that mortification remains necessary, even if fasting and abstinence are no longer prescribed — and it is necessary all through life, not just in Lent.

Mortification is necessary to make up for our past sins, but also to cut out the roots of sin — the three lusts that rule the world (I Jo. 2,16): lust of the flesh, or love of pleasure; the lust of the eyes, or love of luxuries and riches; and the pride of life, or love of independence.

Against these three lusts, the Church proposes three remedies: against the love of pleasure, fasting and abstinence; against the love of money, almsgiving; against the love of independence, prayer.

As useful and necessary as voluntary mortification is, it cannot bring the soul to perfect purity. God must purify it himself. This is the teaching of St. John of the Cross "From neither of these imperfections... can the soul purify itself completely, until God plunges it into the passive purification of this dark night of which we are about to speak. It is right, however, that the soul, insofar as it can, procure on its part to purify and perfect itself, so as to merit God's placing it in this divine cure, where he heals the soul from all the things of which it could not free itself. Because, however much the soul may help itself, it cannot purify itself actively so as to be at all prepared for the divine union of love, if God does not take things in hand and purify it in this dark fire" (Dark Night, Bk. 1, ch.3, n.3).

Suffering is the means God uses to achieve this perfect purification of the soul. In different places and under different forms, Scripture repeats that, as gold and silver are refined by fire, thus souls pleasing to God are purified in the furnace of tribulation (Ps. 65, 10; Prov. 17,3; Sap. 3,6,- Eccli. 2,5; 1 Pet. 1, 7; 4,12). For that reason, St. Paul rejoices and even overflows with joy in all his troubles (2 Cor. 7,4), "knowing that tribulation works out endurance, and endurance tried virtue" (Rom. 5,4).

God uses different sorts of suffering to purify the soul. They may be the ordinary kind, which come from natural causes or from people — poverty, illness, humiliations, injustice, persecution, etc. For souls who aspire to perfection, he adds to these interior distress and agony, which St. John of the Cross describes in what he calls the night of the senses and the night of the spirit, and which burn much more deeply into the soul than any exterior suffering. At times, God even allows the devil to harass a holy soul through obsessions of all kinds, not excepting possession — although this is rare.

The purpose of it all is to enable the soul to receive the full communication of God's love with all its delights, passing all understanding. How much, then, should we be zealous to purify our souls, as the Church invites us to do in a special way during Lent. If this purification is not completed here on earth, it will have to be completed after death, because nothing defiled shall enter into the heavenly Jerusalem (Apoc. 21,27).




Fr. Leonard M. Puech, O.F.M. "Lent: Purification from Natural Motives." In Spiritual Guidance (Vancouver, B.C.: Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice and Liberty, 1983), 233-236.

Republished with permission of the Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice and Liberty.


The late Fr. Leonard M. Puech wrote a popular column for the B.C. Catholic from 1976 to 1982. Those columns were compiled and published by the Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice, and Liberty as the book Spiritual Guidance in 1983. The VFAJL is interested in reprinting Spiritual Guidance. Anyone who would like to contribute to this worthy cause please write: Dr. Margherita Oberti, 1170 Eyremount Drive, West Vancouver, B.C. V7S 2C5.

Copyright © 1983 Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice, & Liberty

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